China said Monday it will take “countermeasures” if the United States called for a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, hours after unconfirmed reports that the Biden administration could announce such a move this week.
CNN and NBC cited unnamed sources Sunday as saying the diplomatic boycott — meaning no US government officials would attend the Games, but athletes would still compete — could be revealed this week, after President Joe Biden said in November it was something he was “considering.”
Biden is under pressure at home to speak out on China’s human rights abuses, especially in Xinjiang where the US government says repression of the Uyghur ethnic group qualifies as genocide.
In response to reports Beijing said such a move would be “pure grandstanding”.
“I want to stress that the Winter Olympic Games is not a stage for political posturing and manipulation,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a regular press briefing on Monday, warning the US should stop “hyping” the boycott.
“If the US is bent on having its own way, China will take resolute countermeasures,” Zhao said.
Campaigners say that at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
Coming just six months after the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Summer Games, the Winter Olympics will be held from February 4 to 20 in a “closed loop” bubble because of Covid-19 restrictions.
The United States urged Cuban authorities on Sunday to lift a ban on protests ahead of planned anti-government demonstrations, the State Department said in a statement.
“We call on the Cuban government to respect Cubans’ rights, by allowing them to peacefully assemble and use their voices without fear of government reprisal or violence, and by keeping Internet and telecommunication lines open for the free exchange of information,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.
Cuba’s opposition has called for demonstrations in Havana and six provinces on Monday — which have been prohibited by the communist authorities — to call for the release of political prisoners.
More than 1,200 people were arrested during history-making protests in July, with more than 650 of them still in detention, according to NGO Cubalex.
Blinken hit out at the Cuban government’s crackdown on the protests and condemned “intimidation tactics” of blocking protests, firing opposition supporters and threatening them with detention ahead of Monday’s demonstrations.
“We urge the Cuban government to reject violence, and instead, embrace this historic opportunity to listen to the voices of their people,” Blinken said, calling on other democratic states to “echo our support for Cuban demonstrators.”
He added the United States will continue to “promote accountability for the Cuban regime’s repression and human rights violations.”
Havana has accused Washington of backing the protests in an effort to destabilize the Cuban government.
“We are very much standing with the people of Sudan. The people of Sudan have made clear their aspirations for the continuation of transition to democracy and we will continue to support that including, if needed, by holding accountable those responsible for these anti-democratic actions.”
Price said that the United States received no prior knowledge of the military’s intention to oust Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and has not been able to make contact with the detained civilian leader.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is preparing to allow “mix and match” coronavirus vaccine boosting, in which people get a different additional shot to the dose they initially received, US media reported.
Citing sources familiar with the situation, the New York Times said the FDA might make the announcement on Wednesday when it is also expected to authorize boosters for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
A preliminary study released in the United States last week showed that people who have received the J&J vaccine may benefit from a booster dose of a different, messenger-RNA vaccine such as Pfizer or Moderna.
But multiple reports quoted people familiar with the discussions as saying one shot may not be recommended over another, and the FDA could say using the same vaccine is preferable when possible.
“People should generally get the same vaccine as their initial series,” a federal official told the Washington Post.
Proponents of mixing and matching point to its benefits in terms of simplifying vaccine rollout, and ensuring those who need boosters can get them regardless of which jab they initially had.
“From a public health perspective, there’s a clear need in some situations for individuals to receive a different vaccine,” Amanda Cohn, a high-ranking Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official, told the New York Times.
In July the World Health Organization’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said mixing and matching vaccines was “a bit of a data-free, evidence-free zone.”
The US study on boosters, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, has several limitations.
The number of participants was small, and the immune response could evolve beyond the 15 days observed during the study.
In the United States, over-65s, adults with high-risk medical conditions, and those in jobs where they are frequently exposed to the virus are eligible to receive booster shots.
The World Health Organization’s vaccine advisers recommended last week that people with weakened immune systems should be offered an additional dose of all WHO-approved Covid-19 vaccines.
But the WHO wants a moratorium on booster doses for the general population until the end of the year to prioritize first doses in the dozens of nations starved of vaccines.
The Taliban warned the United States not to “destabilise” the regime on Saturday during their first face-to-face talks since the US withdrawal, as a deadly sectarian bombing raised further questions about their grip on power.
As mourners in northern Afghanistan buried their dead from an attack on a Shiite mosque that killed 62, a Taliban delegation told US officials in Doha that any weakening of their government could cause “problems for the people”.
Scores more worshippers were wounded in Friday’s blast in Kunduz, which was claimed by the Islamic State group — who appear to be attempting to further shake Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.
“We clearly told them that trying to destabilise the government in Afghanistan is good for no one,” the Taliban’s foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi told the Afghan state news agency Bakhtar after the talks in the Qatari capital.
“Good relations with Afghanistan are good for everyone. Nothing should be done to weaken the existing government in Afghanistan which can lead to problems for the people,” he said, in a recorded statement translated by AFP.
The Taliban are seeking international recognition, as well as assistance to avoid a humanitarian disaster and ease Afghanistan’s economic crisis.
A State Department official said the US delegation would press the Taliban to ensure terrorists do not create a base for attacks in the country.
It would also pressure Afghanistan’s new rulers to form an inclusive government and to respect the rights of women and girls, the official said, stressing the meeting did not indicate Washington recognised Taliban rule.
“We remain clear that any legitimacy must be earned through the Taliban’s own actions,” the official said.
Taliban’s bitter rivals
As the two-day talks began, Kunduz counted the cost of the bloodiest assault since US forces left the country in August.
A gravedigger in the Shiite cemetery overlooking the city told AFP they had handled 62 bodies, and local reports suggested the final toll could be up to 100.
The regional branch of IS, known as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), has repeatedly targeted Shiites in Afghanistan. It is a Sunni Islamist group like the Taliban, but the two are bitter rivals.
IS-K said the attack was carried out by a Uyghur suicide bomber who had “detonated an explosive vest amid a crowd” of Shiite worshippers.
The attack happened during Friday prayers — the most important of the week for Muslims — and residents of the city told AFP that hundreds of worshippers were inside.
In a heart-wrenching scene, relatives gathered around the newly-dug graves in Kunduz wailed inconsolably over their loved ones.
“We are really hurt by what happened,” Zemarai Mubarak Zada, 42, told AFP as he mourned his 17-year-old nephew, who he said had wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor.
“He wanted to get married. He wanted to go to university,” he said.
The Taliban’s efforts to consolidate power have been undermined by a series of deadly IS-K attacks.
The Taliban security chief in Kunduz accused the mosque attackers of trying to foment trouble between Shiites and Sunnis.
“We assure our Shiite brothers that in the future, we will provide security for them and that such problems will not happen to them,” Mulawi Dost Muhammad said.
The attack was met with broad international condemnation, with UN chief Antonio Guterres calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Guterres “condemns in the strongest terms today’s horrific attack”, the third against a religious institution in Afghanistan in a week, his spokesman said.
Viewed as heretics by Sunni extremists such as IS, Shiite Muslims have suffered some of Afghanistan’s most violent assaults, with rallies bombed, hospitals targeted and commuters ambushed.
Shiites make up about 20 percent of the Afghan population. Many of them are Hazara, an ethnic group that has been persecuted for decades.
Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told AFP the Taliban would find it difficult to consolidate power unless they tackle terrorism and the growing economic crisis.
“If the Taliban, as is likely, is unable to address these concerns, it will struggle to gain domestic legitimacy, and we could see the emergence of a new armed resistance,” he said.
Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has appealed his conviction for the murder of George Floyd, citing 14 complaints about his high-profile trial earlier this year in a case that roiled the United States and laid bare deep racial divisions.
The killing of Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in May 2020 went viral after being caught on camera and sparked America’s biggest demonstrations for racial justice in decades.
Chauvin, who in June was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison for killing Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly 10 minutes, appealed the conviction Thursday night with a Minnesota district court, on the last day he was able to do so.
He accuses the state of prejudicial misconduct and lists multiple issues with the jury selected for the trial, among other objections.
The former police officer accuses the court of “abusing its discretion” by denying requests to postpone or move the trial and refusing to sequester the jury for its duration.
Chauvin, a 45-year-old white man, was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck, indifferent to the dying man’s groans and to the pleas of distraught passers-by.
Floyd repeatedly said “I can’t breathe” before he died.
The scene, filmed and uploaded by a young woman, quickly spread around the world.
Hundreds of thousands of people subsequently poured onto streets across the country and overseas to demand an end to racism and police brutality.
The ex-cop and three of his colleagues arrested Floyd on suspicion of having passed a fake $20 bill in a store in Minneapolis, a northern city of around 400,000 people.
They handcuffed him and pinned him to the ground in the street.
In the filed documents, Chauvin said he has no income and no legal representation in the appeals process. A defense fund that paid for his representation during the trial was terminated after his sentencing.
Relief At Risk
The sacked police officer, who was present for the full six weeks of his trial, did not testify, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
His lawyer said he had followed police procedures in force at the time and that Floyd’s death was due to health problems exacerbated by drug use.
But, at the end of the high-profile trial in April, a jury took less than 10 hours to convict Chauvin of Floyd’s murder.
He was found guilty on all three charges — second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter.
The other three police officers are to face state charges next year for their roles in Floyd’s death.
Chauvin’s conviction was greeted with relief across the country.
Many had feared an acquittal would lead to worse unrest, while others worried that once again a white police officer would get away with what they saw as murder.
The Floyd family’s lawyer called the sentencing a “historic” step towards racial reconciliation in the United States.
Chauvin had a record of using excessive force before the unarmed Floyd died under his knee.
At the end of the trial, Chauvin offered his condolences to the Floyd family and said: “There’s going to be some other information in the future that would be of interest and I hope things will give you some peace of mind,” without elaborating
The United States is shipping another 2.5 million Covid vaccine doses to hard-hit Bangladesh, a White House official told AFP on Thursday, after the Biden administration announced a ramping up of global donations.
The latest shipment — 2,508,480 Pfizer doses — brings the total of US shots to the country above nine million.
Packing was underway and first deliveries, made through the World Health Organization’s Covax program, arrive Monday, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
“We are proud to be able to deliver these safe and effective vaccines to the people of Bangladesh,” said the official, adding that there were “no strings attached” to the donation.
“We are sharing these doses not to secure favors or extract concessions,” the official said.
According to an AFP database, only 9.3 percent of Bangladesh’s population had been fully vaccinated as of this week.
The impoverished country of about 170 million people, which neighbors India, has struggled to get the pandemic under control, imposing some of the world’s longest lockdowns.
Children only went back to school two weeks ago after being out of classrooms for 18 months — an example of the education gap that the United Nations children’s agency, UNICEF, recently warned is worsening inequity for millions of children across South Asia.
Like other rich countries, the United States has been accused of hoarding vaccines and prioritizing booster shots instead of helping swaths of the world that remain largely unvaccinated.
On Wednesday, the United States authorized third doses of Pfizer vaccines for elderly and at-risk populations.
However, President Joe Biden has declared the United States the world’s vaccine “arsenal” in the war on Covid-19 and US donations total more than those from the rest of the world combined.
Biden told a Covid-19 summit of world leaders Wednesday that the United States is donating a “historic” extra 500 million vaccine doses, bringing the total US commitment worldwide to 1.1 billion.
The new tranche of half a billion vaccines will be from Pfizer and will go to low-income and middle-income countries as defined by Gavi, which co-leads Covax along with the World Health Organization.
Biden was also challenging world leaders to vaccinate 70 percent of every country by September 2022, the White House said in a statement.
A senior US administration official told reporters that Washington is “proving that you can take care of your own, while helping others as well.”
US officials also deny they are competing in “vaccine diplomacy” with authoritarian China and Russia, which have used nationally produced vaccines to fill the supply vacuum in less-developed regions during the pandemic.
While the latest global coronavirus wave peaked in late August, the virus continues to spread rapidly, particularly in the United States, which is officially the worst-hit country.
Some 4.7 million people worldwide have died since the outbreak began in China in December 2019, according to an AFP tally from official sources.
The Federal Government has said it would recover 200 million pounds stashed in the United States, as it embarks on a massive recovery of assets belonging to the country.
This is according to the Attorney-General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami who was speaking on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Speaking on the fight against corruption and illicit financial flow in the country, he said, “We are looking at the possibility of recovering further 200m pounds among others but then, that does not mean they are not other associated assets being pursued, in terms of other countries of the world inclusive of Ireland.
“We are pursuing a lot of assets across the globe and then we intend to coordinate further meetings relating to recovery in the United Kingdom which is associated with certain personalities”.
The AGF said he would not like to further disclose the strategy the federal government will use in making the recovery, but noted that the “government is trying to gather international momentum associated with the processes and procedures, in terms of making things easier for countries to recover assets with ease”.
He added that the government is fully committed to its anti-corruption campaign and by extension spreading its dragnet to those who are in the custody of laundered or stolen funds.
President Joe Biden told the world on Tuesday that the United States is not seeking a new Cold War with China as he vowed to pivot from post-9/11 conflicts and take a global leadership role on crises from climate to Covid.
Addressing the UN General Assembly for the first time as President, Biden promised to work to advance democracy and alliances, despite friction with Europe over France’s loss of a mega-contract.
The Biden administration has identified a rising and authoritarian China as the paramount challenge of the 21st century, but in his United Nations debut, he made clear he was not trying to sow divisions.
“We are not seeking a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” Biden said.
“The United States is ready to work with any nation that steps up and pursues peaceful resolution to share challenges even if we have intense disagreement in other areas.”
Biden did not mention China by name, other than voicing alarm about human rights in Xinjiang, where experts say more than one million people from the Uyghur and other mostly Muslim populations are incarcerated.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to address the General Assembly later Tuesday but by video in light of Covid-19 precautions.
Biden declared himself to be the first US president in 20 years not to be running a war after his controversial pullout of troops from Afghanistan, where the Taliban swiftly took over.
Instead, America is “opening a new era of relentless diplomacy” in which military power must be the “tool of last resort.”
“The mission must be clear and achievable, undertaken with informed consent of the American people and whenever possible in partnership with our allies,” Biden said from the UN rostrum where previous US presidents, notably including George W. Bush, have pushed for military action.
‘Recipe For Trouble’
Opening the General Assembly, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of growing divisions between the United States and China and urged dialogue.
“I fear our world is creeping towards two different sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately two different military and geopolitical strategies,” Guterres said.
“This is a recipe for trouble. It would be far less predictable than the Cold War.”
The UN General Assembly is meeting in person for the first time in two years but at limited capacity and with pandemic precautions.
The measures include replacing the microphone after each speaker — likely welcome news for the 78-year-old Biden who spoke after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who defied guidance only to attend if vaccinated.
Biden has called a virtual summit on Wednesday on defeating the pandemic and teased that he will announce “additional commitments.”
“We seek to advance the fight against Covid-19 and hold ourselves accountable around specific targets on three key challenges: saving lives now, vaccinating the world, and building back better,” Biden said.
He also said Washington would double financing on climate change — a key element in reaching an ambitious new accord in November at a UN conference in Glasgow as temperatures and severe weather rise dangerously.
The United Nations says there is a $20 billion shortfall in the $100 billion fund that developed countries promised to mobilize annually from 2020-2025 for helping poorer nations adapt to climate change.
Friction With Europe
Biden will end a busy diplomatic week with an unprecedented four-way summit at the White House with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan — the so-called “Quad” widely seen as a united front against China.
But Biden’s efforts to shore up alliances have faced one sudden and strong hurdle: France.
Paris recalled its ambassador to Washington in fury after Australia canceled a multibillion-dollar contract for French conventional submarines in favor of US nuclear versions as part of a new alliance announced with Washington and London.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said he will not meet one-on-one in New York with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and has described Biden’s diplomatic style as “brutality.”
The White House appears confident it can calm the spat, with Biden set to speak by telephone to French President Emmanuel Macron, who is not attending UNGA due to Covid precautions.
But German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, who openly rejoiced in Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump, voiced solidarity with France and called the submarine decision “disappointing.”
“I was never under any illusion that we wouldn’t have problems with the new American president,” he told reporters.
Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, who is expected to address the assembly on Friday, is among about a hundred world leaders who attended the opening ceremony today.
While Washington has not authorised the AstraZeneca vaccine against Covid-19, a European commissioner on Monday expressed hope that travellers from the continent inoculated with the jab will soon be able to enter the United States.
The US government on Monday announced that starting November 1, it will lift the pandemic travel ban on all air passengers who are fully vaccinated and undergo testing and contact tracing.
The unprecedented travel restrictions had raised tensions between the United States and its European allies and had kept relatives, friends and business travelers around the world separated for many months as the pandemic grinds on.
In an interview in Washington with AFP, Thierry Breton, European commissioner for internal market, said the new order covers people vaccinated with jabs recognized by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The agency has not approved the AstraZeneca shot used by many European nations, however, Breton said he spoke with White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients who “sounded positive and optimistic.”
However, Zients told him that “for the other vaccines, for AstraZeneca in particular, their health agency would decide.”
Whether a decision would come by November 1 when travel resumes, Zients “seemed positive on the dates, too,” said Breton, who coordinates the EU’s supply of Covid-19 vaccines.
Breton said the restrictions “no longer made any sense.”
Despite Europe’s relatively high vaccination rates “we are on the same restrictions as China, Iran, and other countries. It makes no sense at all,” he said.
The United States first imposed the restrictions as the pandemic began in March 2020 on travelers from the European Union, United Kingdom, and China, later extending it to India and Brazil.
However, the availability of Covid-19 vaccines has made continuing the travel ban a point of transatlantic tension.
That worsened in recent days after Australia’s sudden announcement that it will acquire US-built nuclear submarines as part of a new defense alliance, ditching a contract with France for conventionally powered submarines.
The United States called Tuesday on the Taliban to follow through on promises made after their takeover of Afghanistan to respect the rights of citizens including women.
“If the Taliban says they are going to respect the rights of their citizens, we will be looking for them to uphold that statement and make good on that statement,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.
The Taliban at their first news conference after taking over Kabul said Tuesday that they were committed to human rights along Islamic lines.